My Pantsing Approach to Scrivener

I’m going to write a little bit about how I use the Scrivener writing program for my writing.

But first, in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to note that I am an employee of Literature & Latte, the software company that makes Scrivener.

This blog post is not a paid endorsement by Literature & Latte. Nor does the following post claim to provide any tips on best practices or official troubleshooting advice. For that, please contact the company’s tech-support team.

Instead, I want to write a bit about the real struggles I had with first using Scrivener and how I finally figured out a workflow that has it fit with my writing habits.

I bought my first Scrivener license in 2009, which was right around the time that I was reading for my doctoral exams. I had heard that it was this great program for organizing research and then writing drafts of a paper. I had visions of using it to help me organize my notes so I could write my doctoral exam essays more easily, and then use that work as a jumping-off point for my dissertation.

But, for many reasons, that all fell apart. I didn’t take the time to go through the program’s tutorial because I just felt so pressed for time given the length of my three exam reading lists. I half-assed a few notes in the program but eventually abandoned it for Microsoft Word. At that time, Word for Mac absolutely sucked swamp water, but at least its flaws were more familiar to me from my years as a project manager working on a PC.

When Scrivener 2 for the Mac came out, I purchased the upgrade license with visions of doing more with the new version and its improved tools. But in my experiments with it, I found the program was still daunting to use. Mostly because I kept seeing it referenced as an “outline-based writing program” or as a “file-based document manager.”

Since I do not write to an outline and wasn’t really sure how to use a “file-based document manager,” I gave up again and went back to Word, while also dabbling with Nisus Writer Pro.

I kept seeing various writing magazines, authors, and “best of” tech lists calling Scrivener one of those must-have apps, so I decided to give it another try. During all my work with Word, I had found that my writing style really doesn’t fit with a traditional word-processing program.

That is, I feel that Word and other word-processing programs really want the writer to work in a single, long document. They’re taking their cues from how writers worked on typewriters, where you’d shove a page in, bang out a page of text, and then shove another page into the typewriter and repeat.

What Word and other word processors missed, though, is that writing with a typewriter allows the writer to work on each chapter as a discrete batch of pages. That is, a writer could write chapter one and then skip to chapter ten because standard manuscript formatting has each chapter start midway down on a new page.

In a word-processing program, a writer that has a different Word or Apple Pages document for each chapter has to figure out how to combine all of those different chapters into a single manuscript for page numbering. And, that’s not always the easiest task.

If you’re a pantser like I am, you might write this scene from chapter one but then skip to a different scene from chapter fifteen. For me, I tend to see the scenes unfold in my head like I’m watching a movie, but they aren’t chronological.

Instead, my brain will come up with the perfect scene for one chapter while I’m showering and figure out another one for someplace else in the book later that night when I’m doing dishes.

If trying to pull thirty different Word documents that represent thirty chapters together can be a pain, let me tell you that you do not want to try to piece together a novel scene by scene the way I write. It’s enough to make angels fear to tread.

This, for me, is where the magic of Scrivener comes in. I am absolutely not someone who writes an outline for my books or even my short stories. I feel like my writing process is analogous to driving on a rural, narrow, winding road late at night when a new moon is in the sky.

On a drive like that, my headlights will show me just a little bit of the road ahead of me, but not enough that I can see my final destination. I spend a lot of time triple-checking my odometer, my map, and arguing with myself about if the burned oak I saw three miles back was the one that burned five years ago and marked the place where I needed to take the left-hand fork or not.

When your writing process is that hit-or-miss, an outliner really doesn’t sound like it will be useful. But Scrivener is because it lets me write my project scene by scene, even if I don’t know where anything will go yet.

The screenshot at the top of this post is from one of my WIP. As you’ll see, I have a whole collection of scenes with titles, but I haven’t yet imposed any chapter folders or other structures on the project.

Those scenes were added as the ideas struck, and I’m certain some will be deleted, split into smaller scenes, and combined with others before I have a draft that I like. But, that’s fine because I can use Scrivener’s tools like keywords to track who appears in the scenes, where they’re taking place, and so on.

I haven’t yet used any of those tools for this project because I wasn’t sure how far I’d get with it. But, now that I’m getting into a flow with it, I’ll likely spend some writing time setting up those tools so that I can use them as the project gets bigger for organizing my work and tracking the various characters and settings.

If you’re a pantser who has been curious about Scrivener but frightened of that “outline-based writing tool” description, perhaps this post will give you some ideas about ways to adapt its tools for your own use.

And, if you’re thinking you’d like to work on a project like a blog, a memoir, or even start writing letters to elected officials or family, you might find a program like Scrivener helpful.

Sure, lots of people who use it are novelists, scientists, or other published writers. But, nothing says that only “serious” or “published” writers can use it.

I have seventeen Scrivener projects stored in my favorites list. They range from several short stories and two novels to my personal journal. I recently created a memoir I’m just starting to toy with. I also have a project for this blog.

And, I have another project where I type up the letters that I’m sending to friends and relatives. Then, I transcribe those letters from Scrivener onto my stationery. (I prefer the handwritten note to the printed one.)

If you’re already a Scrivener user, what’s the one thing you wish you’d understood about it when you first started using it?

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